Film Review: Into the Woods (dir by Rob Marshall)


I had such a mixed reaction to Into the Woods, the latest Rob Marshall-directed musical adaptation, that it’s hard to really know how to start my review, let alone how to conclude it.

So, I’ll start by answering the most important question that you probably have about this film.  I think sometimes that film snobs like me tend to forget that, for most people, it’s just a question of whether or not the film is worth the time, effort, and money that it will take to sit through it.  In other words, having seen Into the Woods, do I recommend it?

Yes, I do.  Well, kind of anyway.  As I said before, it’s complicated.  But, for the most part, I enjoyed Into the Woods.  The audience that I saw it with (and the theater was absolutely packed) seemed to really love the film and there was even a smattering of applause at the end of it.  Into the Woods is a crowd-pleaser.  It’s a well-made film.  It’s perfectly cast.  It’s full of funny moments.  The costumes are absolutely to die for.  (I’m totally in love with the gown that Anna Kendrick gets to wear to the ball.)  Meryl Streep will probably get an Oscar nomination.  Chris Pine deserves to be given a lot more awards consideration than he’s received.  It’s such a good film and yet…

And yet, I never loved Into the Woods like I thought I would.  I watched it and I kept thinking about how much I, of all people, should have loved this film.  I love musicals.  I love spectacle.  I love fairy tales.  I love revisionism.  I love satire.  I love handsome, charming men, like the one played by Chris Pine.  In a perfect world, Anna Kendrick would be my best friend and we’d spend all of our time going to wine tastings and watching Lifetime movies.  Into the Woods was full of everything that I should have loved and the final song actually brought tears to my mismatched eyes but I never quite came to love the film.  Something was just off.

Before I go any further, I should admit that my reaction may have been influenced by outside factors.  On the one hand, all of the Bowman girls are together right now for the holidays and I loved the fact that, as I watched Into the Woods, I was watching it with my sisters and all four of us were sharing in the experience.  Really, that’s the ideal way to watch something like Into The Woods.  This is the type of movie that was specifically made to be watched and appreciated by large groups, preferably made up of people who understand and appreciate the conventions of musical theater.

On the other hand, we had the most obnoxious woman ever sitting directly behind us.  She laughed through the entire film, regardless of whether anything funny was happening on screen or not.  (The film features a lot of comedy but it grows progressively darker with each passing minute.)  It wasn’t just that she wouldn’t stop laughing as much as it was that her laugh was so insincere.  You could tell that she was laughing because she wanted everyone to be impressed with the fact that she “got” the film.  But ultimately, all she did was get on everyone’s nerves with her inability to understand that we weren’t there to listen to her dry heave of a laugh.  We were there because we wanted to see Into the Woods.  The experience was not meant to be about her.  It was about the movie.

As for what the film is about, it’s an adaptation of the famous Stephen Sondheim musical in which the Baker (James Corben) and the Baker’s Wife (Emily Blunt) attempt to break the spell of a not-quite-evil-but-definitely-bad-tempered witch (Meryl Streep).  By bringing the witch several things (the majority of which can be found in the woods that sit right outside their village), they can lift the curse that has made it impossible for the Baker’s Wife to get pregnant.  Along the way, they run into everyone from the witch’s daughter, Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) to Jack the Giant Slayer (Daniel Huttlestone) to Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) to the Big Bad Wolf (Johnny Deep, playing up the sexual subtext of the story of Little Red Riding Hood) to not one but two charming princes (played by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen)!  Into the Woods starts by poking gentle fun at the fairy tales of old and then gets darker and darker until, by the end of the film, only a few characters are left alive.

It’s a great idea and it’s gorgeously executed but yet the film itself never quite makes the transition from being good to being great.  Towards the end of the musical, the surviving characters sing about missing their loved ones and it brought tears to my eyes but that was one of the few moments when the film itself actually made an emotional connection.  Otherwise, I spent a lot of time feeling curiously detached from what was happening on screen.

Thinking about Into The Woods, it’s hard not to compare it to 2012’s version of Les Miserables.  In Les Miserables, all of the songs were recorded live on set.  And, for all the unfair criticism that Russell Crowe received for his singing, this brought a definite raw power and immediacy to the entire production.  What some of the actors may have lacked in conventional singing ability, they made up for with the sheer power of their performances.  In Into The Woods, the majority of the songs were pre-recorded.  Everyone sounds almost too perfect.  There’s none of the vitality or danger that came with Les Miserables or even Rob Marshall’s previous musical, Nine.

(As far as casting, direction, and almost everything else is concerned, Into The Woods is a hundred times better than Nine but it still never manages to produce a moment as vibrantly silly and memorable as Kate Hudson’s performance of Cinema Italiano.)

Into the Woods does have a uniformly excellent cast.  Everyone — even the much-criticized Johnny Depp — does a wonderful job with their role.  Meryl Streep has been getting all of the awards-consideration, largely because she’s Meryl Streep and, if she could get a nomination for giving that performance in August: Osage County, then she can probably get a nomination for anything.  (And don’t get me wrong — Meryl’s great and all but there’s still a part of me that would have loved to have seen what a less self-enamored performer — like Marion Cotillard or Helen Mirren — could have done with the role of the Witch.)  But, to me, the film’s best two performances really came from Anna Kendrick and Chris Pine.  Whether pausing to strike a heroic pose or casually trying to seduce a woman who he meets in the woods or explaining that he’s been raised to be charming and not sincere, Chris Pine is never less than outstanding.

So, to get back to the only question that really matters, did I like Into The Woods?  I did but I did not love it, which is unfortunate because I really wanted to love it.

However, overall, I recommend Into The Woods.

Just don’t watch it alone.

Or with anyone who has an annoying laugh.

Into_The_Woods_(film)

 

The Brief Thrill Of The Phoenix Film Critics Nominations


Lego MovieI have to admit that, when I first looked at the just-released Phoenix Film Critics Nominations for 2014, I got really excited.  I saw The LEGO Movie listed among the nominees for best picture and I thought to myself, “Oh my God!  Could The LEGO Movie be set to be the fourth animated film to score a best picture nomination from the Academy!?”

Seriously, my inner movie trivia lover was so excited!

Then, of course, I remembered that critical recognition doesn’t necessarily translate into Oscar nominations.  And I was forced to admit that The LEGO Movie probably will not be nominated for best picture, though it definitely remains a front runner for best animated feature.

But, for a few moments there, I was truly an excited Oscar watcher.

Anyway, here are the Phoenix Film Critics Nominations!

(h/t to Awards Circuit)

BEST PICTURE/ TOP TEN FILMS OF 2014

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • Gone Girl
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Lego Movie
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Whiplash

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
  • David Fincher, Gone Girl
  • Alejandro G. Inarritu, Birdman
  • Richard Linklater, Boyhood

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Bradley Cooper, American Sniper
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game
  • Brendon Gleeson, Calvary
  • Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman
  • Michael Keaton, Birdman
  • Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

  • Amy Adams, Big Eyes
  • Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Hilary Swank, The Homesman
  • Reese Witherspoon, Wild

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Ethan Hawke, Boyhood
  • Logan Lerman, Fury
  • Edward Norton, Birdman
  • Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher
  • J. K. Simmons, Whiplash

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • Patricia Arquette, Boyhood
  • Jessica Chastain, A Most Violent Year
  • Carrie Coon, Gone Girl
  • Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game
  • Emma Stone, Birdman

BEST ENSMEBLE ACTING

  • Birdman
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Into the Woods

BEST SCREENPLAY WRITTEN DIRECTLY FOR THE SCREEN

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Whiplash

BEST SCREENPLAY ADAPTED FROM ANOTHER MEDIUM

  • American Sniper
  • Gone Girl
  • The Imitation Game
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Wild

BEST LIVE ACTION FAMILY FILM

  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • Muppets Most Wanted

BEST ANIMATED FILM

  • Big Hero 6
  • The Boxtrolls
  • The Lego Movie
  • How to Train Your Dragon 2

OVERLOOKED FILM OF THE YEAR

  • Calvary
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Obvious Child
  • The Skeleton Twins
  • Snowpiercer

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

  • Force Majeure
  • IDA
  • Mood Indigo
  • The Raid 2

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Citizenfour
  • Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me
  • Jodorowsky’s Dune
  • Life Itself
  • Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • Everything is Awesome, The Lego Movie
  • Immortals, Big Hero 6
  • Lost Stars, Begin Again
  • Miracles, Unbroken

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Birdman
  • Gone Girl
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • The Theory of Everything

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • A Most Violent Year
  • Birdman
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods
  • The Theory of Everything
  • Unbroken

BEST FILM EDITING

  • Birdman
  • Boyhood
  • Gone Girl
  • Interstellar
  • Into the Woods

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • The Imitation Game
  • Interstellar
  • Snowpiercer

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
  • Inherent Vice
  • Into the Woods
  • Maleficent
  • The Theory of Everything

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • Guardians of the Galaxy
  • The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
  • Interstellar

BEST STUNTS

  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
  • Edge of Tomorrow
  • John Wick
  • Need for Speed
  • The Raid 2

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE ON CAMERA

  • Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
  • Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl
  • Jenny Slate, Obvious Child

BREAKTHROUGH PERFORMANCE BEHIND THE CAMERA

  • Damien Chazelle, Whiplash
  • Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler
  • Gillian Robespierre, Obvious Child
  • Jon Stewart, Rosewater

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH – MALE

  • Ellar Coltrane, Boyhood
  • Daniel Huttlestone, Into the Woods
  • Jaeden Lieberber, St. Vincent
  • Ed Oxenbould, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
  • Tony Revolori, The Grand Budapest Hotel

BEST PERFORMANCE BY A YOUTH – FEMALE

  • Lilla Crawford, Into the Woods
  • Mackenzie Foy, Interstellar
  • Sterling Jerins, And So It Goes

grand-budapest-hotel

Trailer: Les Misérables (Teaser)


The moment I saw the news feed that one of my most anticipated films of 2012 finally has an official teaser trailer out I knew that my expectations would only grow with each viewing.

Tom Hooper doesn’t go for small in following up his Academy Award-winning directing work in The King’s Speech by adapting the hugely popular and beloved stage musical Les Misérables which in itself was adapted from the classic Victor Hugo novel of the same name. The cast stars Hugh Jackman and Russell Crowe in the roles of Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert. Anne Hathaway comes away with the role of the tragic Fantine with Amanda Seyfried taking on the role of Fantine’s grown-up daughter Cosette. In what could be a star-making turn, Samantha Barks gets the coveted role of Eponine which was the same role she played as part of the musical’s 25th Anniversary Concert.

Details about this film musical has been scarce, but it’s already been reported that every actor in the cast does their own singing and done so live in front of the camera. This stylistic choice may keep some of the songs from reaching epic levels, but should do well in better conveying the emotional impact for some of the more personal character songs in the musical. In fact, the song that Anne Hathaway sings in the trailer, “I Dreamed A Dream”, is one of those character songs that seem to sound much better with it being less is more style.

Les Misérables is set for a December 14, 2012 release date.